Tag Archives: history

The Harsh Romance of Colonial Iceland Today

Oh, how time changes things. There are people on Earth, such as Canadians and Icelanders, whose social lives are profoundly shaped by the culture of the United States and its exported industry, wars, culture and technologies. For three generations, we have accepted these intrusions as business arrangements, for the mutual benefit of all. The image of Hvalfjörður below illustrates the principle well: the airfield that protected the Allied Fleet during the Battle of the Atlantic in the foreground, when Iceland was occupied by the US Army, and the American aluminum plant in the background, which has brought a certain level of industrial economy to Iceland, although dominating the fjord and depressing its possibilities as a residential suburb of Reykjavik, adding to the pressure to expand Reykjavik upon unstable volcanic terrane. Both speak of a long, although not always willing, partnership that not only lead to Iceland’s independence but to Iceland’s freedom from poverty and to world peace.

We can only hope that some beneficial partnership can continue, now that the aluminum from this American plant is subject to a penalizing tax if it were to be shipped to the United States or bought by another American corporation, on the grounds that it is contributing to the military vulnerability of the United States. That this is essentially a tax on the freedom brought to Iceland by the USA under the guise of a beneficent occupation (first military and then economic) is ironic, as it will strengthen Iceland’s ties with nations other than the United States, including China, the main target of the US tax. In other words, the image above is of two ruins: the old airfield, now a bird sanctuary, and the aluminum plant across the fjord. Iceland will continue, in its resilient ways, but this is an image of a lost world. Best to see it before it’s gone, like the colonial Danish sulfur mines above Lake Myvatn, now a major tourist site, with nary a sign to say these are the slag heaps.

Romantic display holds great power here, but masks a harsh social reality of a proud people who must actively trade with the world to maintain their independence from it. The balance is difficult.

Beautiful Systrafoss

Back in the days before lava covered the best of Iceland and people had to move up onto the hills with their sheep…

… the priests of Kirkjubær …

The basalt column marks the old church.

… were famous for keeping a group of nuns, well, orphan girls for the most part, over at Kirkubærjarklaustur, for the pleasure that could be gained from that …

 

… in just the place the Irish monks (who were on Iceland before the Icelanders) were camping out in caves in the cliffs and living off bird eggs (and then abandoned because a bunch of noisy pagans and their Irish women [slaves aka wives] had moved into town), and I wonder, you know, if the priests didn’t choose the place because the falls are like a bridal veil.

Systrafoss

… that flows down the hill separately, splits around the rock (fine Christian symbolism there) and then unites as one — before flowing through the cloister. We’ll never know, but we do know that the young women were set to work embroidering cloth, and that Icelandic cloth was the best in the world. It would be a surprise if the amorous priests missed out on the symbolism, or didn’t point it out to the girls left in their charge. At any rate, the falls are beautiful, and richer for a history older than Iceland, even though the lava took all the best land away, some say to punish those lascivious priests.

Still, the land’s still good enough for zipping through on a tractor, so all is not lost.

Beauty and Loss: Finding Iceland

So many Icelandic men of my father’s generation thought they could stay on the land if they built a nice concrete house to keep their families out of the wind, but they did it the Icelandic way, with salt beach sand, and it fell apart.

Women still come, as the snagged necklet of clear glass beads and fishing line below shows, but, as the snag shows, they leave without these baubles, too.


And that is one of the forces that powers the world.

~

Selstaðir

The Problem With Cairns

In Iceland, the major architectural monuments from the past are also way-finding cairns of stones passing across inhospitable terrain. They were essential for commerce and the maintaining of a low technology culture in a harsh environment. They are now essential links to the past, as important to Icelanders as, say, the pyramids in Egypt or the Strasbourg Cathedral in France. In other words, they led somewhere, and still lead somewhere important, even as people continue to try to read them.

Aimlessness at Þingvellirvatn

Unfortunately, many contemporary visitors to Iceland, being humans and liking to make their own presence into lasting magical gestures, a signature of their kind, obscure the landscapes with their mark-making. Please don’t. It’s ugly and aimless. They don’t let you do it in Paris. Respect goes a long way towards creating beauty.

Iceland Old and New

The lush fields of Iceland are created by nitrate fertilizer. This is the new Iceland. It’s not prosperous. Look how it relies on old buildings in disrepair, or ignores them completely. That is the reality of survival when most everyone has gone to the city, yet still needs to eat from the land. In the image below, you can see, perhaps, the buildings of the post-war years tucked behind a hill, the old house field, the tun, that kept the farm alive in the foreground, beneath the oil tanks, and the new, industrialized fields int he distance. The old is still here.Here in the far north, the progression is even more clear: driftwood from Norway or Russia, an old turf house, the tun gone yellow with wild flowers in front of the slope where the old house once stood, a rusted oil tank, and an old fish-drying shed. The new, industrial fields are in the upper right. It’s cold here on the Greenland Sea.The pattern is repeated everywhere, as it is here at Kirkjubærjarklaustur: new barn, old barn, new industrial fields, the tun plowed over, but a gate from the 1970s, and that Siberian driftwood once again.If the Icelanders are saying their country is prospering, don’t say no. They want to stay a part of the world. It’s hard to do so. The land, however, is crying.


The Beauty and The Ugliness of The Icelandic North

Even in Iceland, beauty is elusive. These hot springs and sulfur vents near Myvatn were mined by the Danes for sulfur. They are now a tourist site.They are, in fact, mine tailings. Only a tiny fraction of the sulfur remains. It’s still beautiful, though.

Nature, though, it is not. The Icelanders know this. You should know it too.

This is politics writ large.